Requesting Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School

Letters of Recommendation

Graduate programs will commonly require 2-3 letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation allow an admissions committee to understand your strengths, weaknesses, and potential from another person’s perspective. Programs may specify the type of recommendations they require, ranging from academic ones from faculty to professional ones from former or current employers. In some cases, there may be a form that recommenders will need to submit with their letter or there may be specific questions the program requests recommenders address in their evaluation of your candidacy. Below are some steps we think you should take when approaching faculty about writing letters of recommendation; you can also find more information in our Soliciting Letters of Recommendation Prezi.

    • Who should you ask to write a letter of recommendation? You want to ask recommenders who know you well and who can best speak to your qualifications and potential for graduate work. They should be able to describe your work positively and be able to favorably compare you with your peers. Professors, research PI’s, summer research or program mentors, internship supervisors, deans, and advisors may all serve as recommenders. Focus on asking recommenders who will be able to write a thorough and meaningful letter, as opposed to recommenders who may have a prestigious title but are unable to speak to your qualifications.
    • Schedule a Meeting: Once you have decided whom you’d like to ask, contact them to schedule a meeting. In this meeting, you should be prepared to discuss your larger interests and goals for graduate school and why you’re approaching them to write you a letter. You might also want to bring a current resume, a short description of each program, a draft copy of your personal statement (if you have one), any pertinent reminders about the work you have done for this professor along with suggestions for what they could emphasize about you, a copy of your transcript (unofficial is fine) and any extenuating circumstances that may have affected your grades, the official description of the criteria the recommender’s letter should address, and the deadline by which the letter is due. Specifically ask, “Do you feel you know me, my academic record, and/or my leadership qualities well enough to write a strong letter of recommendation for graduate school?” By asking this question, you’ve now given the professor the opportunity to decline gracefully. If the answer is “no,” thank them for their time and make sure you have others in mind.
    • Ask well in advance of the deadline and follow up: You should give each recommender at least four to five weeks to write your letter, though it might also be helpful to consult with them to see how much lead-time they need. This is especially true for letters to be written over breaks or needed for popular deadlines. Establish a firm deadline; as the deadline approaches, make sure to follow up with a gentle reminder and confirm that the letter was sent. If you have a past recommendation from several year ago, consider contacting the faculty member to update or refresh the letter.
    • Drafting your own recommendation: If a recommender asks you to provide a draft of your own recommendation, provide the recommender with this sample draft from the National Association of Colleges & Employers. You may also ethically provide a list of bullet points you would like the letter to address and/or a factual narrative of key achievements (avoid adjectives). Explain that you are unable to write a draft that provides the kind of judgment and comparative evaluation that only the recommender can provide and that helps make for a strong recommendation.
    • Say thank you! Write your recommenders a note of thanks and let them know what happens.
By Meredith Mira
Meredith Mira Senior Associate Director Meredith Mira